DUBAI (Reuters) - A Bahraini court sentenced 167 people arrested in 2017 at a sit-in outside the home of Bahrain’s leading Shi’ite Muslim cleric to between six months and 10 years in prison at a trial in late February, court documents and lawyers said.
Protesters had gathered at the home of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim fearing that he could be deported after the authorities revoked his citizenship as part of a crackdown on Shi’ite activists, who accuse the Sunni-ruled kingdom of discriminating against them. In a raid on the sit-in, security forces killed five people and arrested hundreds more.
Court documents obtained by Reuters showed that at the sentencing on Feb. 27, the High Criminal Court handed 56 of the defendants 10-year prison terms. The majority received one-year terms. The court acquitted four people.
The documents did not specify the charges but a government spokesperson said in a statement sent to Reuters those convicted were found guilty for the “abduction and torture of innocent citizens and attacks on police officers”.
Two lawyers involved in the case said they had filed an appeal.
The defendants, who were detained for six months before being released on bail in late 2017, were not in court for the sentencing.
“None of the defendants came to the court when the sentences were announced because they feared being arrested,” one lawyer, who declined to be named, said.
Mass trials became commonplace in Bahrain following a failed uprising in 2011 that was led by members of the Shi’ite majority. Scores of people are imprisoned including leading opposition figures and human rights activists. Many others have fled abroad.
Former members of the disbanded opposition group al-Wefaq, which was close to Qassim, said on a Twitter account they run under the group’s name that the defendants were innocent and described the May 2017 raid as a “brutal, bloody attack”.
Many of Bahrain’s Shi’ites say they are deprived of jobs and government services and treated as second-class citizens in the country of 1.5 million, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Since the 2011 uprising, the Gulf island has seen sporadic clashes between protesters and security forces, who have been targeted by several bomb attacks.
In a statement on Thursday, the Bahraini government denied having targeted Shi’ite activists, saying individual rights are protected and “ethnic backgrounds are never taken into account in any circumstance in Bahrain”.
The statement said police showed up at Qassim’s home following “complaints from members of the public of widespread intimidation, including the kidnap and torture of citizens for reporting crimes and attempting to remove illegal barricades”.
“During the operation, the individuals attacked police officers with firebombs, axes, knives and metal rods,” the statement added.
A U.S. State Department human rights report released on Wednesday noted that authorities were still investigating the “circumstances surrounding the death of five protesters during a May 2017 security operation to clear protesters outside the house of Shia cleric Isa Qassim”.
The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said the majority of those arrested have been subjected to “the most atrocious torture”.
“This is a massively unfair trial which has passed completely unnoticed ... this trial is a textbook example of the culture of impunity that prevails in Bahrain,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD.
The authorities have denied accusations of torture.
Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Catherine Evans